Japan’s whale-research vessels are now scheduled to return to port after completing their observations and sampling in the northwestern Pacific. Meanwhile, the United States continues to criticize Japan’s research program and threaten trade sanctions. One can’t help but suspect that all the antiwhaling rhetoric and the presidential election are related.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Norman Mineta recently described Japan’s whale-research program as “preposterous.” But it is not Japan’s whale-research program that is preposterous. Rather, it is Mineta’s threat to impose trade measures against Japan for the take of 10 sperm whales and 50 Bryde’s whales for research purposes that is preposterous. Perhaps, like most Americans, the secretary is unaware that his government supports the killing of more than 60 bowhead whales each year in Alaska from a truly endangered (World Conservation Union red list) and drastically depleted population of 7,000, and that whaling in the U.S. produces approximately the same amount of whale meat each year as the byproducts of Japan’s whale-research programs.

It is also apparent that the secretary has received an inadequate briefing concerning the response of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee to Japan’s whale-research programs. Contrary to his statements, the committee has praised both the quality and quantity of data from these programs and stated that the results provide valuable information for management of whale stocks. The committee has further noted that nonlethal means of collecting much of this data are unlikely to be successful. This is hardly surprising, since to study the diet of whales one needs to examine the contents of their stomachs.

Japan’s whale-research programs involve both lethal and nonlethal techniques, including sighting surveys and the use of biopsy sampling. However, the primary purpose of Japan’s current research program is to examine the impact of whales on the fisheries resources of the north Pacific, where whales are increasingly abundant and are consuming fish from declining fisheries that feed humans. Yes, the program includes the take of sperm and Bryde’s whales, which have not been hunted since 1987, but it is certain that the small take (up to 50 Bryde’s and 10 sperm whales) from abundant stocks for research purposes will not have any negative impact on these stocks.

The catching of whales for scientific purposes is perfectly legal under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Further, it is a requirement of the convention that the byproducts of the research be processed to ensure that resources are not wasted. The secretary’s “alarm” that “whale meat from these hunts finds its way to Japanese fish markets” is therefore disingenuous. Research is not a “loophole” or “illegal” or “commercial whaling in disguise,” as the antiwhaling rhetoric suggests, just because the meat ends up on the market.

Criticism of this research for domestic political purposes by the governments of the U.S., Britain, New Zealand and others ignores both science and international law and is a rejection of the basic principle that resources should be managed on a scientific basis. Further, threats of sanctions against a perfectly legal and scientifically sound research program are a provocative and inappropriate attempt to intimidate Japan and impose Western cultural values.

U.S. threats of sanctions against Japan are based on domestic legislation granting the U.S. president discretion to prohibit imports originating in a foreign country when it is “certified” as conducting fishing operations in a manner that “diminishes the effectiveness of an international fishery-conservation program.”

It is a fact that the purpose of the IWC’s parent treaty is to manage whaling in a sustainable manner. Contrary to this however, the U.S. has, since the early 1980s, taken the position that all whales should be protected irrespective of the conservation status of stocks. This position subverts the purpose of the treaty and has rendered the IWC dysfunctional. In such circumstances, only a perverse political interpretation would allow that Japan’s research “diminishes the effectiveness of the IWC’s conservation program.”

Trade sanctions are unwarranted, particularly since the research is perfectly legal under the treaty. Further, sanctions as threatened by the U.S. secretary of commerce would be a violation of GATT rules and could be challenged by Japan at the World Trade Organization.

The U.S. has “certified” Japan three times for “diminishing the effectiveness of the IWC’s conservation program.” In total, such certifications have been used against six different countries no fewer than 12 times on whaling-related matters. No trade sanctions were applied in any of these cases.

Many international fisheries organizations have urged the development of multiple-species management systems. This means that predator-prey relationships among the major components of an ecosystem must be understood. In a world where 60 percent of the major fishery resources are over-exploited or fully exploited, while whales are consuming three to five times the amount of marine resources caught annually for human consumption, Japan’s whale-research programs should be welcomed.

It is important to understand that anti-whaling is not the majority worldview. At both the 1997 and 2000 Conferences of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), more than half the countries present supported the resumption of controlled international trade in minke whale meat. Many fishing nations, including Norway, China, Korea, Russia and Iceland, as well as many developing countries, support the sustainable use of all marine resources, including whales, and research programs that provide for science-based decisions on resource management.

Pressure from nongovernment organizations and the fact that there is no domestic constituency supporting whaling in most Western countries means that an antiwhaling position is a political freebie. It is therefore no coincidence that former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor, who “certified” Canada in 1996 for the take of a single bowhead whale by aboriginal people in the Arctic, is now associated with a law firm that represents the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Unfortunately, as the U.S. boycott of international environmental meetings held in Japan last week clearly demonstrates, the result of the political hypocrisy over whaling is antienvironmental, since it threatens the international cooperation required to properly manage all marine resources and address real environmental issues.

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